NSO's 'george WASHINGTON': Haunting message for today's leadership

Also on the program, fun Haydn, riveting Saint-Saëns Photo: Margot Ingoldsby Schulman

WASHINGTON, October 4, 2013 — The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) opened its regular concert season Thursday evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a three-century spanning program centered on a world premiere work dedicated to the memory of George Washington, our Nation’s first President.

Music Director Christoph Eschenbach led the NSO in this first-ever performance of Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Roger Reynolds’ “george WASHINGTON,” a co-commission by the NSO via the Hechinger Commissioning Fund, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and the University of California Washington Center.

Also on the NSO’s October 3 program—which will be repeated on October 4 and 5—were Haydn’s charming, early Symphony No. 21, and Camille Saint-Saëns’ magnificent Symphony No. 3 in C-minor, more popularly known as the “Organ Symphony.”

Haydn and Saint-Saëns

Scored for a small orchestra, Hayden’s Symphony No. 21, like many of the composer’s early works, may seem but a trifle. But in it, as in many of his other early works, he evolved the idea of what a modern symphony should be. In the process, as always, he also demonstrated his knack for an infectious tune, his keen instinct for strong and sometimes unusual rhythms, and his usual sense of fun and mischief from which he could rarely refrain.

House in Vienna where Haydn spent his final years. (Wikipedia)

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Members of the NSO—the work doesn’t require the full modern complement of musicians—seemed to catch Papa Haydn’s entertaining sense of wit in this, the orchestra’s first performance of this work, making it a delightful way to begin the evening.

The final portion of Thursday’s program was devoted to Saint-Saëns’ beloved “Organ Symphony,” starring the Concert Hall’s superb and still-new Rubenstein Family Organ with NSO organist William Neil as soloist. The organ was unveiled roughly a year ago in the fall of 2012 and has proved light-years ahead of the poor and declining original instrument it replaced.

Although the Saint-Saëns symphony is technically in the standard four movement format, not dissimilar to the Haydn symphony that began the concert, this purportedly late-Romantic composer showed a good deal of creativity within the tradition. In the first place, the symphony actually unfolds as two movements which are then, either by means of bridge passages or suspended pauses, subdivided, resulting in the traditional four.

This seemingly curious structure actually allows the composer to weave a surprising amount of thematic unity into the symphony, repeating and transforming elements first heard in the early movements into entirely different moods and motifs in the later ones.

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Innovations also include the judicious use of the piano as an additional and colorful percussion instrument, and, of course, the organ itself. Some may regard this symphony as a really big organ concerto, but that’s not quite right.

In spite of its popular nickname, the “Organ Symphony” is just that, a symphony that sometimes features the symphonic organ as just another instrument, albeit an impressive one. No showy solo passages here as in, for example, Poulenc’s witty and spooky Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Percussion.

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1915. (Wikipedia)

But actually, the symphony goes a bit deeper than that. Saint-Saëns himself, despite his often-prickly personality, was a superb organist, and organ techniques were in his compositional bones. Even those portions of the symphony that don’t include the organ at all have a way of building and massing choirs while making use of sliding chromatic harmonies, all of which conjure up the feeling of the royal instrument itself. It’s simply a wondrous composition, particularly for organ aficionados.

And those organ aficionados surely must have appreciated Thursday’s performance of this work by the NSO. In the faster movements, a few bars of the composer’s tricky score caught up some of the players here and there. But that said, the NSO gave an exquisitely beautiful and vigorous reading of this symphony, and the brass sections, particularly when backed by the organ, have never sounded better.

The effective second movement of the symphony, marked “Poco adagio,” was in many ways the emotional core of this performance, with the ever shifting, chromatic longing in the strings augmented by Mr. O’Neil’s superb control of the organ’s accompanying and sometimes alternating crescendi and decrescendi. Achingly beautiful. We loved this best, although it was hard not to cheer at the conclusion of the NSO’s rousing finale, either. Best ever. Period.

“george WASHINGTON”: Required listening and reading for Congress

Although the Haydn symphony was charming and the Saint-Saëns was riveting, early attention at this concert focused on Mr. Reynolds’ new composition, which, on the program, was bookended by the other two works. This new composition received advance billing as a multi-media work conceived as “not a history lesson, but about trying to enter into Washington’s world.”

The central idea, in fact, was to create, in effect, a multimedia art “assembly” of words, images, music, and ambient sounds flowing together as an aural and visual immersion into what the composer and his collaborators felt might approximate the world of our first president.

Composer Roger Reynolds. (Courtesy NSO)

As “george WASHINGTON” unfolded over approximately 23 minutes, its seamless subdivisions moved seasonally from winter through fall, depicting each season impressionistically via stills and videos recently taken in and around Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and many of its reconstructed outbuildings. The images were projected on three large, subdivided screens to the sides and the rear of the orchestra. 

At the same time, the sounds of nature and the jolting, mechanical sounds of early industry rippled around and through the Concert Hall by means of a meticulously calibrated surround sound system, the kind you might encounter in a first-class multiplex cinema. The sounds rolled in, took center stage, then rolled back out, carefully integrated with the composer’s orchestral backgrounds, all executed with surprising seamlessness when it could have sounded entirely artificial.

Jaime Oliver, Josef Kucera and Ross Karre collaborated with the composer to create “george’s” immersive environment.

In many respects, upon reflection, “george WASHINGTON” proved to emulate, in an odd way, the pattern of Leonard Bernstein’s somewhat forgotten “Mass,” the world premiere work that opened the Kennedy Center’s doors to the public. Bernstein regarded “Mass” as essentially “a theater piece” with singers and dancers. That’s essentially what Mr. Reynolds’ new work is as well. Minus the singers and dancers.

In their place, we have three different narrators, actors Clark Young, Thomas Keegan, and Philip Larson in these performances. Each narrator speaks the words of George Washington himself with each representing a different time in Washington’s life: youth, middle age, and autumn years.

Narrators Clark Young, Thomas Keegan, and Philip Larson with Music Director Christoph Eschenbach. (Photo by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman)

Whether by intention or not, however, via these narrators the real star of this work emerged: the Nation’s first President. The pictures, the sounds, the orchestral textures are all simply background supporting carefully selected excerpts of Washington’s writings—not from his public writings and speeches which tend to be stiff, proper and formal but derived instead from the first president’s diaries and letters in which he freely expressed his innermost reflections and feelings.

All were penned at a chaotic time when the untried, radical new nation-concept eventually unveiled as the fledgling United States of America, was struggling through its birth pangs. An oppressor of significant means had to somehow be defeated. And in the meantime, the wildly differing aims of each colony had to be honored while at the same time unified into a single Federal government that would permit individual and state freedom while uniting and protecting the entire entity.

Leutze’s famous portrait of Washington crossing the Delaware. (Wikipedia)

And it was for this reason—almost surely unintentional when this composition was initially conceived—that Washington’s words, as superbly delivered by the three actors in this performance, must surely have caused many in the audience to do a mental double-take when pondering this capital city’s intensely partisan and ideological impasse over not only the budget but the National Intention as well.

This new work’s libretto excerpts key passages in Washington’s personal writings. In the second section of “george,” Washington reflects indignantly on the presumptions of the British King and Parliament: “I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put mine into yours.”

He also observes that bullying and thuggery by the great toward the weak will not end well: “I would tell them that we had borne much, that we had long and ardently sought for reconciliation on honorable terms…that…we are determined to shake off all connexions with a state so unjust and so unnatural.”

Portrait of Washington at the signing of the Constitution. Where are today’s elder statesmen? (Wikipedia)

Washington writes glowingly of the new nation’s painstakingly constructed Constitution, “the result of a spirit of amity and mutual concession,” noting “The various and opposite interests which were to be conciliated; the local prejudices which were to be subdued, the diversity of opinions and sentiments which were to be reconciled; and, in fine, the sacrifices which were necessary to be made on all sides…,” and summing the process up by observing “Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness.”

As “george” draws to a close, the actors voice two final excerpts from Washington’s words that perhaps serve as an appropriate benediction and warning for us even today:

Aerial view of Mt. Vernon today. (Credit: Dean Norton, courtesy Mt. Vernon and NSO)

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”

“I rejoice in a belief that intellectual light will spring up in the dark corners of the earth; that freedom of inquiry will produce liberality of conduct; that mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were made for the few.”

Musically, Mr. Reynolds’ new work offers us relatively few new ideas aside from a post-modernist postscript of sounds often too heavy on novelty percussion effects. Been there, done that, usually at the movies. Yet taken in conjunction with the sights and sounds of the nature, the rhythms, and the activities of Washington’s alter-ego, Mr. Vernon, and joined with the first president’s intellectual musings and thoughts, the entire work rivets the intellect on what this country once hoped to be and could be again if intelligent, thinking adults were somehow put back in charge.

The libretto excerpts from “george” ought to be required reading in the White House and on Capitol Hill. But alas, we don’t imagine any of today’s political actors would take the time to see how utterly they have failed the vision of the Nation’s first, and likely greatest President.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

This concert will be repeated tonight, Friday, and Saturday (October 4 and 5) at 8 p.m.

In addition the Kennedy Center will also be offering free Millennium Stage music programs highlighting the music of George Washington’s time by the Colonial Music Institute’s David Hildebrand (October 4) and the Ginger Hildebrand Trio (October 5).

The Millennium Stage performances, which traditionally begin at 6 p.m., are free.

For tickets and information to any of the three NSO concerts this weekend, visit the Kennedy Center Box Office; call Instant Charge at 202-467-4600 or 1-800-444-1324; or visit the Kennedy Center website at www.kennedy-center.org. Ticket prices range from $20-85.

VISITORS PLEASE NOTE: For the duration of the current Federal government shutdown, all ticketed Kennedy Center events will take place as scheduled. However, normal weekly visiting hours to the Center itself are curtailed, with the building being open to the public only after 5:00 p.m. weekdays until further notice. Staffers tell us that the general rule during the shutdown is that the Kennedy Center will open daily one hour before the earliest scheduled performance, so weekend openings may be earlier. But play it safe. Things change and your mileage may vary. Please check the Kennedy Center website for details and updates.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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